What Stace had to say on Thursday, July 15th, 2010
What are we afraid of?

On Tuesday we discussed whether or not writing was art, and how much of ourselves writers should put into their work. And it kind of struck me, as the discussion ran along similar lines at Romance Divas, as I was writing the post, and as I was preparing this one, that if we’re going to accept books as art and writers as artists…are writers the only artists who are regularly expected to completely distance themselves from their art? To act as if it has nothing to do with them?

I think this perhaps happens a bit more in genre fiction. I do believe there’s a sense that literary fiction is more artistic, that it’s deeper and more expressive or whatever. I think literary fiction writers are allowed to “get away with” stuff genre fiction writers could never even attempt.

But why is that? Is it because we think genre fiction is easier to write? Anyone who’s tried to write it can tell you it’s not. Is it because we think since the stories have certain general tropes that they’re not as original, or again, that they’re easy to write? Maybe. Maybe there is a sense out there that genre fiction isn’t art because we’re just putting a bunch of elements together in the same way as everyone else does, and that it doesn’t require any real depth from the writer. Which, as we discussed a bit on Tuesday, I think is frankly bullshit. In order to create a fully fleshed-out character you have to do some digging. In order to create a real and complex world you need to do that. If you want to make your story mean anything to readers, elicit any emotion in readers, you need to elicit that emotion in yourself, which means digging deep and–again–being honest. You can’t hide or lie to readers in your work.

But I do think there’s a weird kind of pressure on genre fiction writers to not let on that they see themselves or think of themselves as artists. There’s a definite pressure to act like their art means nothing to them, like it’s an entity completely separate from them.

Think of it this way. If a painter has a gallery show, and a critic ravages his work, does anyone frown and kick up a fuss if the artist gets upset about it? Does anyone remind him that reviews don’t exist to make him feel better, but to inform art lovers whether or not his work is worth their time? Not as far as I know. People expect the artist to be upset about terrible reviews. They expect him to be temperamental; hell, we all know what the phrase “artistic temperament” means, don’t we?

Now, I am NOT, absolutely NOT, implying in any way that reviewers don’t have the right to say whatever they want about books, or that reviews aren’t for readers and not writers–they absolutely are–or that writers should be allowed to freak out all over the internet and threaten people or name crack whore characters after people who gave them bad reviews or whatever. No, no, no, I’m not saying that at all, not one bit; you all know how I feel about that. This post isn’t about reviewers or reviews, except insomuch as they can be another example of what I feel is the expectation that genre fiction writers not consider themselves artists, not think or talk about themselves as artists, and not act as though their art is important to them. Like caring about your work has become synonymous somehow with freak-out rants and threats, instead of just…caring about your work. I’m not implying in any way that this sort of pressure comes solely from reviewers or readers, either; it comes from other writers just as much if not more.

Let’s take the “book as baby” cliche. Now, I am 100% in favor of the “Your book is NOT your baby,” reply to that one. I’ve had two babies. I’ve written over a dozen novels. I can tell you they’re entirely different.

And yes, you should be able to distance yourself from your work to some extent. Your work isn’t you. People are going to have differing opinions about your work; some may love it, some may hate it. Just like some people like you and some people hate you, and we try to learn from an early age that a lot of peoples’ opinions just don’t matter, that the only people whose opinions we should care about are our families and close friends, our bosses, whatever. You know what I mean.

But at the same time, as we discussed a bit on Tuesday, when you write you do put a lot of yourself into the work. And a lot of people will decide from that work that they can judge or define you as a person; that they somehow know you because they’ve read your books. And as I said, maybe they do. I don’t know what people think of me after reading my books, or what sort of person they think I am, or what clues to that they’ve found in my work. And this sort of judgment has always taken place, and still takes place, everywhere from the largest newspaper in the country to the smallest review blog. People always want to analyze the writer through his or her work, and they always want to analyze the work by connecting it to what they know of the writer. That’s normal; it’s just the way it goes. But again, that seems to be the case for literary fiction and not genre fiction.

I don’t believe genre fiction is any less artistic than literary fiction. I don’t believe genre fiction writers put any less of themselves into their work or expose themselves any less, at least not good genre fiction writers. I’m tired of fantasy or science fiction or romance being treated like they’re not “real” books. But I also wonder, at what point does that become, not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one which we ourselves contribute to?

See, every time we as genre fiction writers huff indignantly that our work isn’t that special to us, that it’s not our baby, that it’s not ourselves, maybe we contribute to the idea that genre fiction isn’t art and shouldn’t be treated/considered as such. Maybe we contribute to the idea that we haven’t put anything of ourselves into the work, that we haven’t actually written anything of depth or truth.

It comes into the “professionalism” argument as well. We’re all so worried about being professional, about being easy to work with and seeing our work as a commodity and ourselves as commodities and all of that…have we become so focused on publishing as a business that we’ve forgotten about the magic of it? About the art? Have we tried so hard to be seen as professionals, not as silly women writing silly things or whatever, that we’ve stripped away some of the joy, and turned art into drudgery? We don’t want to say our work matters to us because that’s not a professional attitude; but you tell me in what other profession people are expected not to care about their work? Why can’t we be professional and still deeply invested in what we do?

It seems sometimes as if that attitude, the “Oh, my work is just what I do for a living, it doesn’t really mean that much to me, I’m totally cool, yo,” attitude, is expected of us. And I’m not sure why. Is it because we do see the occasional stunning online meltdown, with ranting and name-calling and “Wicca curses” and the ever-popular “I’d like to see you write a book, mean girl!” and we all want to distance ourselves from that as much as possible? Maybe. Is it because in some ways genre fiction feels more like a popularity contest than literary fiction, by which I mean we’re expected to network with our readers and interact with them; we’re expected to be accessible and friendly and open, in a way I don’t think litfic writers are? (I could be totally wrong about that, it’s just the impression I get and something I’ve noticed). Litfic writers get on Oprah; genre fiction writers get on Twitter.

I love interacting with readers, I honestly do. I don’t mind the expectation that I promote and Tweet and blog and all of that other stuff, because I enjoy doing all of that. But again, I wonder if the desire to be liked by readers, the desire to be popular, to not offend them, to make them want to support us, has made us deny our art? Has made us put it down or act like it’s nothing special or important in order to seem like just one of the gals, as it were? If we say our work is important, or imply that we’ve done something special that only we can do (by which I mean expressing our own individual truth and telling our own individual story, not writing in general; certainly neither I nor any of my friends are the only people who can write) then we’re not implying to our readers that we think we’re better than them. We’re equalizing with them. We’re being careful not to let a hint of ego or arrogance leak into the air around us, because if they think we’re an asshole they might not buy our books. Hell, even just talking about what our goals were or what we hoped to accomplish with our books can be seen as pretentious or entitled or whatever else.

And I do think that’s part of it as well. Sometimes it feels as thought the denial of genre fiction as art is really writers being told to get the hell over themselves, they only wrote a fantasy novel, you know?

I admit part of that is true. As proud as I am of the Downside books and as much of myself as I put into them, I don’t think they’re WAR AND PEACE. I know they’re not.

But they are art. They are my art. They are an expression of something deep inside me and the way I see the world. That’s what art is; the expression of something to elicit an emotional reaction, remember?

I’m happy to distance myself from that art when necessary; I don’t show up screaming on review blogs if someone didn’t love my work. I don’t reply to Amazon reviews or whatever. That’s not my place. I will freely admit that my books are not my babies, and I will let them go, and let people interpret them as they may. All of that is fine, and expected, and right.

But what I will not do any longer is pretend that my books aren’t part of me, and that they don’t matter, and that they aren’t art. Because they are.

14 comments to “What are we afraid of?”

  1. Jess
    · July 15th, 2010 at 11:29 am · Link

    *two thumbs up*

  2. Jackie U
    · July 15th, 2010 at 11:46 am · Link

    But what if a reviewer *wants* you to name a crack whore character after her? Does that make her weird??

    See, I agree with you and I don’t. I think it should be perfectly acceptable for writers to freak out over bad reviews. Not to take it to the extreme and threaten the reviewer or personally attack him/her, but definitely to vent. If someone called something I wrote a piece of trash, I’d have something to say about it. Many somethings, in fact, mostly expletives. Why shouldn’t you, as the artist, be able to express yourself and your feelings? I’ve never understood this stigma. I’ve seen it, just not understood it. Free speech, much?

    I understand the *why*–there are certain bloggers and reviewers who go after authors who DARE comment on a reviewer like sharks in a bloody ocean. But really, as readers and appreciators of art, shouldn’t we *want* to know how the artist feels? I don’t know if I’m even making sense. This subject bothers me greatly, so it makes it difficult to express myself without cursing and stomping of feet. I guess I just think people should be able to express their displeasure without fear of repercussions as long as they remain respectful and professional.

    Your books are certainly art. They capture emotion, life, death, and everything in betwen. If that’s not art, then I don’t know what is.

  3. Cameron
    · July 15th, 2010 at 12:09 pm · Link

    These were both terrific essays, and it sure is nice to see a genre fiction writer discussing issues like this in such depth.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree. I think art is a creative work whose fundamental and essential effect on the auidence is to engage reflective thought and emotion. I don’t think that kind of engagement is the core significance of genre fiction. I think it’s a craft, and its product is entertainment. In the same way, I love roller coasters, but I don’t consider them art.

    However, even if you accept this view, I don’t see why a genre writer can’t be as personally, deeply invested in her craft as the artist is in her art. And in both cases, I agree with you that the work will suffer if its creator is not personally and deeply invested in its creation.

  4. jjdebenedictis
    · July 15th, 2010 at 12:44 pm · Link

    I like to think of the difference between literary writers and genre writers as being like the difference between research scientists and engineers.

    Research scientists, like literary writers, are on the cutting edge, willingly taking big risks in order to push the limits of what we understand, what we can do. They’re trying to discover new techniques.

    Engineers, like genre writers, take what the trail blazers learned and apply it in order to create wide ranges of useful and desirable products the greater population has a need for.

    Both groups do meaningful, important work. Both require skill, creativity, intelligence and imagination.

    And both are rewarded in their own way. Scientists/literary writers get all the accolades, but engineers/genre writers make waaaaay more money.

  5. Kathy on behalf of Fictionista Workshop
    · July 15th, 2010 at 2:42 pm · Link

    Thanks for your thought-provoking articles. I’ve shared this with our social network, because many of our workshop participants are just starting their fiction-writing journey and I think they will appreciate your insight. Thank you!

  6. Moonsanity (Brenda)
    · July 15th, 2010 at 3:52 pm · Link

    Of course writing is art. Well, I don’t think of non-fiction as art. I’ve written both and it comes from a different place. Writing fiction though is art. All I have done right now are WIP, but I think of them as paintings. Some are filled in a bit more, others are just a few strokes and I’m not sure where they are going. They are a part of us. Actually, now that I’m really thinking on it, you have given me quite an epiphany.

    You rock at your art, by the way:)

  7. Michele Lee
    · July 15th, 2010 at 4:44 pm · Link

    I LIKE it when authors replay to my reviews. Even if they don’t agree I’m open to civil discussion and debate. But I’ve also been completely trashed for a not-positive review, and even had an author throw a fit and get me “banned” as a reviewer (from the press) over a three star review.

    On the first issue you have on one side people who revel in being genre trash and I don’t mean that the genre is trash, but the write knock off after knock off and sub par books at best. You don’t see this a lot in the big presses (but you do see it) but you do see it a lot in the smaller presses, especially horror and romance (and epresses which are under the pressure to put out something new every week).

    On the other side there’s people writing really good stuff that’s dismissed because it’s romance or whatever. Or author who are dismissed because they aren’t making a statement. SF in particular likes their social judgments and dismisses a lot of work as top tier because it doesn’t make some sort of green movement-sociological-whatever statement.

    On the reviewer/writer side you have writers who are scared to comment at all because it might get taken wrong, those who demand ass-kissery for everything, reviewers who are just passionate readers trying to reach out to the authors and other readers and let’s not forget that some “reviewers” are purposefully mean and insulting to get hits, or so that they can test the authors. I disagree that authors should have to put up with that kind of crap. (not that they can stop it, but still.)

  8. Marie
    · July 15th, 2010 at 5:08 pm · Link

    What is art anyway? I’ve always thought it was a difficult question to answer. Everyone of course has a different opinion.
    I’m not a writer, so this is coming from a reader’s perspective.

    I thought about what Cameron wrote, and on Wikipedia, a craft is described as “a skill, especially involving practical arts. It may refer to a trade or particular art”. So maybe then genre writers, like jjdebenedictis said, have (or utilize) a different skill set, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t art.

    Maybe it’s like you said, if you put yourself into something, then you can view it as art. But then of course the question is if it has to resonate with others for it to be viewed as art. It’s always a question of who decides. I’d say that if you say it’s art (and mean it), then it’s art.

    And if you really impact readers in one way or another, and you feel that you’ve accomplished something, then that’s what matters. If War and Peace was released over the summer in three consecutive books, how many people would be dying for the third installment to be released? I have no idea, but my point is: Just because something is entertaining, doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

    I don’t think you have to deny your art to be popular with readers. Readers (not all of course) respect the choices YOU make with YOUR stories. Of course as a reader one can find it frustrating if the story doesn’t go in the direction that one would like :-) but that can be one of the fun things about reading, when a writer surprises you and makes you see events or characters in a different way.

    One reason I went on Twitter was so that I could follow all the brilliant people that are on there. I realized that where I am right now (in my life), authors are my rock stars, and to be able to communicate with my favorite authors, whether they respond or not, is just amazing to me.

    I would say that Twitter is for writers what MySpace was used to be for artists/musicians. I’ve discovered wonderful authors (like Stacia Kane :D) thanks to Twitter.

    Don’t you think that it’s possible for writers to think that their art is great without being seen as arrogant by the readers? I love the fact that I’m able to share my love for books with the people who actually wrote them! The problem with having people like Jane Austen as a favorite author is that it’s kind of difficult to communicate. :-) You can’t really write a fan letter to express your admiration. (Hmm, makes me wonder if Jane Austen would’ve tweeted if she’d been alive today. She was a cool person, so maybe 😉 but on the other hand I don’t know how much contact she’d like to have had with readers.)
    It’s so great to discover that the genre of books I like is the one whose authors often choose to interact with their readers.

    Also, it’s really fun to realize that writers are often just as nerdy about stuff as I am. :-) It makes me less nervous to approach people I admire, when I can see we have things in common, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still admire them for the work they’re doing. Their art.

  9. Synde
    · July 15th, 2010 at 10:21 pm · Link

    Eloquently stated!! Writing is art!! I look at my jewelry as an expression of myself and art!! You open your heart and spill words on to the page.. If that isn’t art nothing is!

  10. The Mighty Buzzard
    · July 15th, 2010 at 11:31 pm · Link

    Here’s the take on it of a guy who consumes the hell out of, and occasionally reviews, genre fiction. Urban Fantasy in particular.

    First thing, be very glad you aren’t lumped in with the “high art” scene by the general populace. We tend to consider scene members spoiled, pompous, self-aggrandizing douchebags who spend most of their time in mutual mental masturbation.

    You guys we like. You don’t write way out there stuff then call it a statement against some convoluted socio-political theory that you made up last week just to have something to speak out against. You’re real people writing stories for other real people to enjoy. It won’t ever get you respect from the snooty douchebags but it will get you much love and hopefully a decent living from the rest of us.

    I think a lot of what gets sections of the general public dismissing works one genre or another as worthless is just a lack of perspective. We don’t try to see it from the point of view of people who enjoy those types of work. And honestly, I don’t blame us. Seriously, who the hell wants to go around having perspective all the time? It’s way too much effort and gives no useful return.

    Now a final word about speaking up on bad reviews. I know you weren’t advocating this but it’s still a damned fine bit of advice that every author should keep in mind.

    Never, ever, no matter how much you feel the need, should you argue on the Internet if your good image is remotely important to you or to how you make a living. If you’re exceedingly lucky, we will stick to the topic and present as rational an argument as we can but there are billions of us and one of you. I assume, being a writer, that you’re good with words but you will still be beaten with the million monkeys approach. More than likely though things will quickly devolve into personal attacks and eventually Hitler/Nazi references. Arguing on the Internet is bad.

  11. Layla Messner
    · July 16th, 2010 at 1:26 am · Link

    Personally, I’m shocked to hear that there is any question as to whether writing, genre fiction or otherwise, is art. (Of course it is.) Personally, I’ve always identified with quotes like this one from Derrick Jensen – “Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page.” Enjoyed every word of this post. Thanks, Stacia.

  12. Shawn R.
    · July 16th, 2010 at 11:01 am · Link

    Somebody in the comments said they thought that genre writing was craft and literary writing was art.

    As I do both, I look to a comparison between writing to painting. Look at Da Vinci and Picasso. Both are freely acknowledged as artists. Both contributed to the revolution of artistic styles and “tropes” in their day. Nobody would argue the fact that they both created art. Saying one was an artist while the other was a craftsman is absurd. They both had something to say in their art, and they expressed it in ways unique to each of them.

    The ability to craft a compelling story that reaches a reader’s emotions, to create worlds and characters out of thin air, is all about art. The techniques for getting paint on the canvas may be the same for Da Vinci and Picasso, but the images they create are all about imagination and artistry. Same with stories. What you want to say and how you tell it is your art. Categorizing something as “genre” or “literature” is, at least in my mind, more about marketing and helping readers find something specific than it is about the “quality” or the artistry of the story.

    As a reader, I enjoy a range of artists, literary & genre alike: Jenny Crusie, Joan Hess, Donna Andrews, Eudora Welty, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Steve Perry, Anne McCaffery, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain. I don’t care for Franz Kafka, Dostoyevski, Alice Walker, Laurell K. Hamilton, George Orwell, Jeffrey Deaver, Voltaire. And this is just a tiny list of authors I’ve read – classics, literature, genre; I have opinions about all of them.

    Oprah and any number of New York book critics have different opinions than I do. I don’t think their opinions are any “better” or more informed than mine are (after all, I’ve been reading since I was 4 years old and I took enough English Lit classes in college to count as a minor). They just have bigger audiences for their views.

    As an artist, I believe in what I paint and I believe in what I write. That work comes from a place in my soul, and the finished product is a reflection of my unique artistry as well as my technical skill in the media of my art. I feel like I have a right to feel hurt if somebody trashes any art that I create, although I also believe that everybody is entitled to their opinions, being rude about opinions is unnecessarily malicious, and indulging in a public screaming match accomplishes nothing useful. (Private venting is something else. That what we have friends and family for.)

    I’ve decided over the last few years to be proud of what I read, what I write, and my opinions about the same. I’ve decided it’s fine if others have different opinions, but they don’t get to denigrate me for mine, and I’ll return the courtesy by not denigrating theirs.

    Thanks for throwing this topic out there.

  13. BernardL
    · July 16th, 2010 at 2:37 pm · Link

    Great post! To me ‘Literary’ means a novel lots of people want to buy and read. It does not mean a novel only elitist pinheads and the number of people I have locked in my closet want to read. :)

  14. atsiko
    · July 16th, 2010 at 9:03 pm · Link

    Great post. This is an especially common taunt leveled at Romance writers, and it’s absolute crap. I’ll take a good genre book over the latest literary doorstopper any day. (Not that I don’t like litfic.)


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